Running on Empty

A newspaper column on the Internet.

Category: Generalized Rage

On Newtown

On Friday afternoon I was walking home with my daughter in a cold and heavy rain. On our left were the mossy tombs and crumbling ruins of the medieval church tower in our neighborhood; on our right, the splashing rush of an approaching car. As it passed I saw it was a hearse, and then I saw the grotesquely shrunken proportions of the coffin, and the toys placed amid the flowers. At this same time, a dreadful thing was happening in Connecticut.

It is cliché to say that having a child changes the way one reacts to events like these but it’s true. It’s not that parenthood automatically opens a greater capacity for empathy. All decent people feel sorrow at the news of a child’s death. My response now is far more selfish. Now that I can more clearly imagine what it would be like to lose a child, I cannot allow myself to imagine it at all. The sight of that small coffin halted my steps but the black town car behind it with the couple inside made me ill.

On Saturday Newtown was on the front page of every newspaper here. By Monday most had moved the story inside. The UK is not grieving in the way America is. The general response is that these killings are terribly sad and senseless and criminal, but that they are also the product of a culture that confoundingly accepts the possibility of such events.

It is illegal to own a handgun in Great Britain, a law that was adopted without much fuss in 1995 after a school shooting. In 2007, according to the Small Arms Survey, there were 41 firearm homicides in England and Wales; in the US, there were 9,146.

Do not interpret this as evidence of enlightenment on this side of the Atlantic. If the US media follows a pattern of righteous and invasively sentimental coverage in the wake of these disasters, the UK press relies on its own lazy clichés to shamelessly paint the US as a nation of gun-crazed zealots. I may want to hurl a shoe at the BBC reporter explaining with a straight face that “many Americans go to sleep with a gun beneath their pillow,” but I am only experiencing belatedly what residents of the Middle East and north Africa must feel when they watch Western reporters’ stand-ups from their cities. The news of yet another mass shooting in America lands here in much the way that reports of bombings in Gaza are received in the US. It’s sad, of course, but look at their history, and their culture. It’ll go on until they’re ready to do something about it. Shame, that.

I have my own feelings about America’s gun laws, but tragedies like this have a way of hijacking what should be sober debate with emotional tirades that burn out once sensation fades. I suspect that anything I’d write at the moment would only contribute to that. I just know that the headline of Sunday’s New York Times was “Children Were All Shot Multiple Times With Semi-Automatic” and that is barbaric.

It’s off the website now, but two days ago you could buy the same model of Bushmaster rifle the killer used in Newtown at Wal-Mart. Nineteen of 20 reviewers gave it five stars.



The Mommy War Profiteers

Surely by now you have seen last month’s Time Magazine cover of the breastfeeding mother. I’m not going to post it again here. If for some reason you haven’t seen it (or if I just live in a parenting bubble, and no one who doesn’t have some combination of children and/or breasts knows what I’m talking about) the cover featured a photo of a striking young blond mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son and staring down the camera like she was about to shiv the photographer. It was accompanied by the headline “Are You Mom Enough?” suggesting an inside story about some kind of underground parenting fight club or the rise of an armed militant wing of La Leche League.

Today, a Google search of  “Time breastfeeding cover” yields 9.6 million hits. It launched a million blog posts with a billion comments that ranged from crazy personal attacks on the photographed mother to crazy personal attacks on women who don’t breastfeed to reasoned, thoughtful arguments to which no one paid much attention. It also gave countless other media outlets a chance to throw up tired, click-attracting headlines about “mommy wars.” More on that later.

In reality, the provocative photograph and doubly provocative headline led to an innocuous profile of Dr. Bill Sears, a pediatrician and the leading figure in a decades-old trend called attachment parenting. As an adherent of the faltering print media industry, I can only say: well done, Time. What does it matter that the cover bore only a tangential relationship to the story inside? It was the bestselling issue of the year, and more impressively it got people talking about something they saw in Time Magazine, like it was suddenly 1997 again. This marketing strategy deserves further exploration. Is Your Spouse Gay?: Inside the Collapse of the Eurozone. Should These Hot Girls Kiss?: Romney’s Foreign Policy, Explained.

As a woman in her thirties with a child, this cover image and the uproar it caused permeated every corner of my social media universe. It seemed like every publication or blog I read had some comment on it. So many friends were talking about it here in the UK – where Time used a different cover – that I asked my mother to buy a copy and mail it to me, again like it was 1997. I could not turn away from the lurid quality of the online discussions it sparked – so many of which took on the personal, baiting, judgment-slinging righteousness that marks any parenting-related forum – and as I read I got madder, and madder. You see, I have a 16-month-old daughter, and when it came to her feeding . . .

Ah ha! That was a trick! When it came to her feeding, it doesn’t matter what I did! It doesn’t matter if I breastfed her because the literature said it was healthy, or because I am a fetishist who gets a sexual charge from using a breast pump! It doesn’t matter if I fed her formula because I had persistent breast infections or because I own stock in Nestle! It’s a private matter! It’s nobody’s business!

I did not realize when I became a mother that every decision places you in one of opposing camps: breastfeeders versus bottle feeders, sleep trainers versus co-sleepers, stay at home versus working mothers, each with their own message boards full of bitterness and insecurity masquerading as righteousness. I also did not realize how much the media likes a girl fight, even when the girls are in their mid-thirties and sporting a couple extra pounds of baby weight, nor that the people watching these arguments had given them their own infantilizing term: the “mommy wars.”

“The Mommy Wars” make me insane. It’s not just the false premise that these personal choices fall into neatly delineated binary camps, that the selection of one way of life implies criticism or rejection of another. You can’t do everything, all the time. A woman’s status regarding breastfeeding or working outside the home could be the result of conscious personal convictions, or simply the product of circumstance. Stop looking for flaws in other people’s reasoning as an excuse to defend your own choices.

It enrages me that American women are pissing away their collective power sniping at each other over superficial details instead of uniting against the infuriating reality that a country that can successfully interbreed Doritos and tacos makes it unnecessarily difficult for the average woman to have a meaningful role in the workplace and care satisfactorily for her children. Before you get all huffy about handouts and Scandinavian-style taxes, remember that family support doesn’t have to mean free cash. In the United Kingdom an employer is required to allow a new mother one year of leave from her job (the amount of pay you get during that time varies by company) and to consider a request for a flexible working schedule upon her return. This isn’t just a mother’s issue, by the way. Flexible family policies make life healthier and happier for women AND the partners with whom they are raising their children. People are arguing this point more eloquently here and here. I just think it’s bullshit that America treats maternity leave like some kind of perk on par with beanbag chairs in the lunchroom.

And God Almighty, do I hate the term mommy wars. Or mommy blog. Or mommy anything. To slap the word “mommy” in front of anything instantly trivializes it. That word belongs to children. If you are more than nine years old and use the term “mommy” in relation to me, I will not take you seriously because I assume you are not taking me seriously either.

So women, men, editors, writer, all of you, all of us – just stop it. Banish the term “mommy wars.” Stop wasting time on petty pissing matches over who’s back at work and who’s still breastfeeding. Stop ignoring important discussions about family policy for stupid sensationalist click-bait. Don’t let yourself be goaded into a fight that isn’t worthy of your energy. Don’t let Time magazine treat your choices like the latest news in pet BFFs.

And if I’m not your mother? Don’t call me Mommy.